Picture this: on an unusually breezy Singaporean evening, you’re quietly sitting in a local park. Perhaps you’re reading a newspaper or maybe just daydreaming. A few other people are using the park too, enjoying some exercise or savouring a few moments outside. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, no-one dares come too close.

Silently, as you sit, your phone is busy. In particular, your new TraceTogether app is saving ID codes associated with the phones of those around you. Using Bluetooth, it is scanning your surroundings and secretly noting down the codes of those who linger nearby. 

This data or “cryptographically generated temporary IDs” are stored on your own phone for 21 days. They are not accessible to you. But, if you were to get sick with COVID-19, the data on your phone can be uploaded by the Ministry of Health, decrypted, and used to identify who was in the park with you that day and anyone else you spent time with. This aids the Ministry’s process of “contact tracing” through which the government tracks those who have potentially come into contact with the virus. 

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Hallam Stevens

Hallam Stevens is an historian of technology at Nanyang Technological University (Singapore). He is the author of Life out of sequence: a data-driven history of bioinformatics (Chicago 2013), Biotechnology and Society: an introduction (Chicago 2016), and the co-editor of Postgenomics: Perspectives on Biology After the Genome (Duke 2015). He serves as the associate director of the NTU Institute of Science and Technology for Humanity.